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Getting the message

In February 2020, a message in a bottle washed ashore at St Aubin beach in the Channel Islands, 82 years after it had apparently been thrown into the sea. But this wasn’t a story of a bottle that had travelled thousands of miles: The note inside—asking the finder to contact a man in Hertfordshire, England, who’d been holidaying in the region, and written on packaging from a local bakery—had simply returned to where it started.

I’d be hard pressed to find a better analogy for the way many consulting firms communicate with their clients. Replace the beachcomber with the marketeer, sitting in their home office, desperately trying to get the attention of a global audience. Replace the scrap of card with a worthy and well-researched article. Replace the sea with LinkedIn… Very little thought leadership or other marketing material ever gets read. And when it does—like the message in the St Aubin bottle—it’s often underwhelming.

We’ve been reading a lot of marketing material sent out by consulting firms recently (thankfully not in actual bottles), and we’ve concluded that the most effective messages—the ones that successfully make their way to distant shores—work at three levels.

The first is relevance. Bombarded with material from multiple quarters, busy clients perform instant triage in determining what they’re prepared to spend even a very small amount of time on. Research has shown that we’re only interested in things we’re already interested in. Thus, I, not knowing one end of a football pitch from the other, will never read an article about football—unless, that is, you can reframe it as something I am already interested in. For example, you have a much better chance of catching my attention with an article about leadership development that draws its lessons from the world of football. This is an important distinction. Clients will often define “relevant” in very narrow terms, such as an interest in finding talent to fill a specific role or work in a particular industry, and they’ll rarely pick up content focused on anything else. But my guess is that you could reach just about every senior executive in the world right now with a solid piece about tackling the post-pandemic talent crisis—regardless of which function or sector you pulled your examples from. “Relevant” is about addressing what really matters, right here, right now.

The second is alignment. Identity politics has made us aware that the way we vote isn’t just—perhaps not at all—about rational decisions around different policies, but about how we think about ourselves and the “tribe” that we belong to. Though it pains me to say it — because I find the myth of rational decision-making comforting — the same is true in business. Executives don’t look for the very best people so much as they look for very good people with whom they share some common ground, knowing they’ll get more done if they work with people who share the same outlook and work in a similar way. That applies to consulting firms, too. One of the reasons thought leadership is so effective is that it helps clients find common ground—to identify firms whose thinking chimes with the client’s own. An effective message, therefore, is one the client can agree with—one that is aligned with the client’s values.

Finally, there’s specificity. Consulting firms need to state their message very clearly. This rarely happens in the glossy brochures we’ve been wading through all summer. Indeed, we suspect that’s what they’re designed to do—to distract from the absence of a clear message by creating a general impression of competence, commitment, innovation, or reliability. At their worst, these slick market “messages” have no message at all: It’s a bit like picking up a cereal package to check the ingredients, only to find a blank space where they should be. Only slightly better is the marketing material that expends a lot of effort on checking off all of the latest consulting jargon, only to end up confusing people. A glossy brochure may be lovely to look at, but if it doesn’t contain a well-crafted, specific statement of what you’re offering to clients, that brochure may do more harm than good.

If you are going to send out a message to your clients, find something they care deeply about, take a stance on it, and be clear about what you’re offering. Just don’t put it in a bottle.